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Improving the quality of online discussion


The most important principles of constructive posting

Take a constructive attitude. Think of everyone as fellow explorers comparing ideas in the pursuit of mutual edification.

Flaming is not usually a flaw or sickness of a single individual: rather, it is a plague that affects the majority; it is a widespread *mode* of interaction. Learn how to keep to the constructive, stripped-down mode, and not resonate with the flaming mode.

Be extremely terse in how you say things, though you may include a large amount of concisely written information. Let all the flaming and junk (and chit-chat) that comes to mind just slip off like Teflon.

Avoid sarcasm and irony. Talk straight.. Deal straight with people. Practice having a perfectly flat, even zombie-like lack of affect. Be neither angry nor chummy. Flaming and humor are two sides of the same bogus coin. A little sprinkling of wit can add seasoning, but only after you have mastered dealing straight with people even when they flame you.

Learn how to assess any expression or phrase: is it signal, or is it noise? Install a mental filter so that you only let the signal through, whether you are writing or reading. Let all the noise, all the flaming, shunt to ground through its own force.

Post specific criticisms of specific assertions; otherwise your vague comments carry no weight other than a vote of disagreement.

When someone flames you, either don't respond at all, or respond as follows: rewrite their message to de-flame it and whittle it down only to their substantial point. If there is anything left, respond to that point. Often they allude or imply some set of assumptions. Express this assumption, which is often some sort of cliched stance and attitude, and then respond rationally.

De-personalize the postings. Avoid the pronouns "I" and "you" as much as possible. Address general attitudes floating around, instead.

Only post material that is good and positive enough to publish on your personal Web site. If people would not want to read your posting in the context of your personal Web site, then the posting is not worth that much in the newsgroups either. Most postings fail this test; they are noise, flaming, junk, and chit-chat.

For some good examples, check out the character of the postings in the alt...postmodern and the better postings in the ....philosophy.misc newsgroups. The programming newsgroups have many constructive, to-the-point postings as well.

The net has great potential, and it can and should realize this potential. The first step *you* can take to save the net is to serve as an example of nonviolent response -- that is, dedication to the constructive attitude. This group and the net at large probably have a higher than average IQ but the standards and role models are sorely lacking, so far. Spread the word, set an example, and we'll all benefit greatly.

The importance of good composition skills for online posting

Spelling *is* important. Clear communication is required to get your thoughts across and to keep the focus on the subject at hand. Grammar, usage, punctuation, spelling, capitalization, and so on are important. Correct writing makes writing transparent, so that the ideas shine through more clearly. Especially if the ideas are complex.

I encourage everyone to develop their writing skills and take that extra time to read and fix typos and grammatical errors before sending.

I can feel my writing skills developing rapidly because of my greater care in online postings. It's important in the same way that speaking intelligibly is. It's a good feeling to increasingly master writing. I wouldn't worry about the occasional typo or poorly formed expression, but there should not be several.

I wish the newsreaders had spellcheckers, and very good ones. The Word spellchecker is useless for me -- it only seems to be a 6-th grade dictionary. But most errors could be caught quickly enough if the writer skimmed and fixed them before posting.

You can read a carefully written posting faster than a garbled one. Writing mistakes are distracting and bring down the overall quality of net communication.

Emptiness of flames; flaming has a low signal-to-noise ratio

Humorous put-down noise makes up most of the Internet congestion. I'm looking for *ideas* to respond to, not epithets. There's nothing for me to work with in such postings. That's the emptiness of flames -- they are nothing; they contain no ideas. They are parasitical. Nothing wrong with them, except that they shouldn't dominate so much in the future, or the Internet will remain the same empty *potential* as it has been so far. Truly rational discussion on the net is a (near?) future proposition.

>I have found most postings to be rather short of insight or maybe intelligance. I am tired of this Beavis & Buttsore mentality of postings. I hate the flaming. I really hope that the newsgroup can evolve into something more positive and productive. I have found great enjoyment in the editing feature of moderated groups and digests. I would hope that more people use the email feature to send their flames directly to the author and not copy the entire newsgroup.

Lack of content is the most serious problem with flaming. I think I'm pretty much through the flame mentality, and I think others will learn.

Now, I'm more concerned about the signal/noise ratio -- the sheer absence of substance. The caliber of knowledge and conversation in the newsgroups adds a new meaning to "lowest common denominator" as this demarcation line is pushed down, down, *way* down... just how far down can it go? But I am considering committing fully to the philosophy.debate and .misc groups and discussing everything there. Perhaps for my own practice at expressing my philosophical discoveries, rather than for anyone to respond, much less understand me, much less *contribute* to my knowledge.

Flaming is not the ultimate limiting factor -- lack of content is.

Exchanging flames has ceased to have any effect on sender or receiver. Flaming is supposed to be invigorating, but it has become tedious embellishment. There's no novelty in it.

Flaming *lacks substance* and thus fails to hold one's attention.
It contains no detailed arguments, but only makes vague
blanket assertions. The real problem with
the net is not the presence of flaming, but the
absence of the *attempt* to write detailed, explicit, clear ideas
and justifications.

"Please, send me something that is more specific, that I can
refute point by point, to clarify together."

The real limitation of flames is not that they are hurtful or chilling, but that
they are *nothing* -- they contain no information, and are
useless toward the pursuit of knowledge.

Flaming vs. thinking

Stooping to vague insults and name-calling cannot possibly lead to truth. The Internet mode of "discourse" -- flaming -- will wear itself out when it produces nothing and convinces no one. Worst of all, it is empty of ideas, as true argumentation is replaced by empty verbal battle.

If no one has more substantial comments than shouting "mindless drivel!", you might as well say nothing and keep down your blood pressure. The Internet is too full of such non-refutations of others' arguments. The only way to truly refute an assertion is with reason. Short of that, you fail to upset or even truly address the propositions.

A set of proposals can only be refuted by the persuasion of *ideas*, not by psychological rejection.

Flaming is a waste of time; I have much better things to do than such troublemaking. Life's too short to waste on pranks and flaming, when the world poses so much greater questions and challenges.

I sent a flamer email asking him to be more specific and explaining my view of the power of persuasive, disinterested argument over the flaming attitude. I could have ignored the flame entirely, but I was deliberately studying flaming.

Any communications you write to a flamer should be neutral, purely constructive and non-condemnatory - not goody-goody. The fighting attitude is itself the source of this widespread problem. Let go of responding to fire with fire, and the flames and related pranks will rapidly die down. I'm not specifically interested in redeeming any particular flamer, but in switching out of the flaming mode of discourse that has robbed the net of most of its great potential, until now.

The joy of flaming is greatly overrated. The disinterested yet passionate pursuit of truth has much more lasting value and interest.

Condensing information

>My "essay" is an extreme simplification for our postliterate society. With something like 50% of Americans now unable to read and comprehend at an 11th grade level, it has to go in one paragraph. It is the limit of their attention span. These essays that I am writing and am planning to write, are an attempt to engage a wider audience in the dialectics of survival.

One paragraph is really too long. Couldn't you keep it down to one sentence or phrase? Waste of bandwidth. Better, deliver via TV.

Exchange of knowledge is even better than a good flame

>Nothing is better than a good flame.

Knowledge of truth is even better than a good flame. It is doubtful that this lesser good -- the ultimate flame -- can ever lead to the superior good -- knowledge of truth. And after several years of inundating the net with flames, it seems unclear that the bliss from the good flames has been overwhelmingly great.

Flames have had their chance. Now it's time to try conversation, which is not without its pleasures.

I'm not hoping that everyone entirely stop flaming, but only that they change the balance more towards constructive conversation than it currently is. I would even settle for 50/50 flames and conversation, rather than the current ratio of 5/95. Flames are limited and will never serve to build up much knowledge or change anyone's views.

The disinterested pursuit of truth is more interesting than flaming. Flaming has had its chance, has had its day. Now the net is ready to move along to more constructive pursuits.

The main way to achieve this in one's own postings is to eliminate the tone of vindictive sarcasm which has been the standard attitude of net discourse until now. This attitude is motivated by the desire to raise yourself by lowering others. As the net population grows older, and grows bored with flaming, the petty interest in fighting will fade. But we can greatly accelerate this maturing toward substance by setting the best examples we can and learning how to respond to violence with nonviolence.

This does not imply that fun and humor and argument have to go. Once the flaming is reduced to its proper scale, the net will be more fun, more humorous, and filled with argument that is constructive and has the power to change people's thinking: the power to convince and persuade.

Spread the word around the Net, and we'll all quickly benefit.

The psychology of flaming; setting an example; prospect for improved conventions. righteous verbal violence; increased information density of neutral debate

It is difficult to break away from the rampant sarcastic flame mode of the net, where trouncing the other emotionally and thereby elevating oneself -- in a very limited way -- dominates, rather than rational argumentation dominating. There is a crucial difference between rational argumentation and emotional argumentation.

I am committed to doing all I can to set an example for clear, rational argumentation on the Internet, even if I am the only one doing it. The Internet *can and should* grow out of the childish, and ultimately uninteresting and impotent, flame mode. The net has great potential, if everyone would simply raise their standards. Most people on the net are as intelligent as they are young, and they *have* great potential to make something significant out of the newsgroups. Most of all, they just lack examples, role models, and high aspirations. Most people instinctively conform to the standards, which are as low as humanly possible.

To drive this change, you have to be willing to be a lone individual dedicated to responding to vindictiveness with reason. But reason need not be dull -- sophisticated wit and irony are of longer lasting entertainment value than monkeys throwing shit at each other, as humorous as that is, for a few minutes. But it's been several years now, and flaming is likely to burn itself out soon, when it becomes clear that it produces nothing and convinces no one.

I'm interested in the psychology of flame-postings. It seems to be driven by hunger for self-righteousness points. By slamming and rejecting someone else, a poster feels themselves to be elevated.

I have even felt this in myself, though I try to be mature and contibute something of substance. Other people don't resist this urge to "kill" each other online with verbal violence. Also, it doesn't seem to matter what position one is arguing for and against. The main point is not to advance a cause of knowledge, but to elevate oneself at another's expense.

Flames are not entirely bad - they do enable open expression of feelings. But they don't really add much value to the world. I am not out to change the way people post, and I am not entirely innocent myself. People are developing fun new techniques of fanning the flames, just for entertainment.

But when anyone climes their soapbox or mount to deliver a sermon of hatred, whatever the cause, they could take a look and themselves and deliberately consider whether they are just escalating a righteousness war, just for the feeling of being pure and sinless, for being on the side of righteous judgement. People find that they can get pulled into the bully attitude of just looking for a fight, jonesing for a religious war. Looking for a reason to beat the crap out of someone, anyone, and there is no war handy? No problem, just come on over to the net, and grap your weapons! Do you want to be on the red, the green, or the blue side? It doesn't really matter, none of us really care what is right and what is wrong, the battle's the thing.

Flaming seems to be the dominant mode of "discussion" in the drugs newsgroups and many others all across the net. If anything, I want to free people to think twice, and consider alternatives to mounting the soapbox of righteous, violent hatred, whatever the cause. I get the feeling that mobs of adolescents wander about, looking for some verbal war to immolate themselves and others. I predict that this mode will pass, after a couple years. There's just not that much content or reward in the rally of flames.

It seems like everything posted is receiced by a hostile mob looking for any excuse to destroy the speaker - an atmosphere of paranoia and antagonism -- communication as a vicious battle. People aren't interested in what others have to say, but are only really interested in righteously slamming as many people as possible. They are unhappy because they miss the excitement of war, and posting becomes a substitute.

I am reminded of ancient civilizations, in which goverment and religion are not differentiated, so that having the wrong thoughts about government or religion are punishable by death. People love above all to get their blood boiling over any issue; it makes them feel more alive and elevated:

"Then the high priest rent his clothes, saying, He hath spoken blasphemy; what further need have we of witnesses? behold, now ye have heard his blasphemy. What think ye? They answered and said, He is guilty of death. Then did they spit in his face, and buffeted him; and others smote him with the palms of their hands." -- Matthew 26:65

Those who are *truly* interested in Truth and Justice, whatever mob they bump elbows with, know that the most effective way to persuade must be something other than cursing and swearing and condemning people. This goes for all factions. We're all *free* to curse and swear and condemn each other -- but once the motive of the thrill of self-righteousness is recognized, more moods of posting become available, other than verbal war to the death, screaming at each other like the apes in 2001. The feeling of righteousness is greatly overrated and cannot satisfy for long enough.

I am not against flaming, but against the way it tends to dominate and elbow out other, more productive and informative modes of discourse.
I want to remind that there are alternatives to participating compulsively in this gleeful shoving match, this ASCII mosh pit.

The newsgroups are like a mousetrap, just *waiting* to snap at any provocation. People don't even listen to each other, but only care to exchange standard attitude-fragments. The extremes tend to dominate, and subtlety cannot survive. The deeper thinkers, who have open minds toward all sides of an issue, are excluded. All the real people, the moderate and sincere people with more complex attitudes, are left out by this fun but unreal politics, the politics of extremism.

The challenge I find myself up against: how can I uphold balanced, reasoned, critical thinking about controversial issues, when the atmosphere is dominated by extremist antagonism of the cartoonish, oversimplified positions and attitudes?

Those who really care about issues know that it is hard work to advance understanding. Flaming is a cop-out and actually backfires against its supposed cause; it only causes the enemy to fortify their Position. The extremes create their own opposition, and the bloody war grinds on forever. How to stop it, or at least, make substantial contributions despite this mind-killing atmosphere?

I want to know and contribute to the truth about religion and the truth about drugs -- those are some important things I care about. These same statements, though, apply to all the controversial issues.

If you are truly committed to your cause, you can probably show it and contribute more through reasoned persuasion than through verbal violence.

This reaoned persuasion does not have to be boring. In a way, it can be much more interesting than the superficial, shallow, and short-lived thrill of the Big-Time Wrestling that characterizes the internet newsgroups.

Because the anti-prohibitionissts, the anti-Inquisitionists, the advocates of legalizing, or "decriminalizing", drugs are consistently winning in the reasoned* debates (as opposed to their inability to stop unreasoning anti-drug attitudes), even the DEA is on the defensive on that front -- just take a look at their web site. The "war" on drugs is harder to promote, on a battleground of reason. It is in the DEA's interest to promote that old flame-like metaphor of "war", rather than "debate". As soon as the "war" metaphor is let go of and replaced by the "debate" metaphor, everyone has to do the real work of research and thinking.

Most people don't want to research and think. It's so much *easier* to simply take a side on some battle or other, and be filled with the glorious feeling of righteousness.

If you are lazy and seek cheap thrills, far be it from me to block your path. After all, this is a free world, and we're all responsible adults who bow to no king and no mob of authorities. No one can stop you from posting however you want. But I'm promoting a broader choice of posting, an escape from the tyranny of flaming, flaming, everywhere. As well as freedom to flame, I am emphasizing that we are all free to post reasoned, considered expressions and complex ideas, which might serve our causes more effectively.

What I have in mind is not to just ignore flames, but acknowledge them *as* flames and refute not only the content of them, but more significantly, by holding up an alternative mode of communication and alternative motives, it *is* possible to change other people from an unproductive mode of basically mindless hatred, and free them into a more productive mode of reasoned disagreement which will have at least a chance of *working out* positions and persuading others to change their minds or reach a different understanding and different conclusions. If someone is a compulsive flamer, you can free them to grow by *demonstrating*, by example, a more open way of thinking.

This does not require a spineless backing down on your opinions, but rather, a willingness to express your ideas with a deeper intensity, to a broader and more significant audience. Righteous flames are cheap and amount to little -- they have a spine but no brain. I simply encourage people to think of themselves as striving to advance the understanding of truth, rather than as glorious heros and saviors. This can even be emotional, but with a more subtle and deep emotional satisfaction than the rush of pride from winning of a vulgar battle of power -- a glory other than that of crushing the enemy into the dust.

You should avoid falling into petty flaming and vindictive sarcasm. If someone asks a perfectly straightforward question there is not the least thing wrong with that. There is no excuse for the poor standards and general nastiness on the net - especially in the philosophy groups. The serious thinkers should refuse to accept flames as "the norm". The net could and should improve -- that goes for every flamer out there. The worst thing about flames is that they are nothing: they contain no information, as you can see from the above *refusal to engage*. If people want fun disagreement, they should try sophisticated wit as a minor accompaniment to substantial information.

Raising the caliber of online postings by example

I have been on a campaign to raise the standards of posting in the psychedelics groups and on the net in general. A few postings are outstanding for both content and form (not a difficult achievement in the alt.* newsgroups). I am surprised by how quickly my writing ability has advanced since raising my own standards. I've been giving a lot of thought to form and content, clarity and substance. The Internet newsgroups have great untapped potential.

Clear and balanced writing really catches my attention now -- it feels more open and reassuring than the claustrobic jungles of typographical and grammatical chaos and garbled utterances that almost entirely clog the mind of the net. I now try to write all my postings so that everything I write can be published in a collection later. In fact, DejaNews *is* archiving everything posted, whether trash or gems. It's not that hard to write carefully, and it's very rewarding to feel my communication skill increasing. I thereby strive to set an example. Now I write with the intention for setting the standards for the entire network. The whole of the net can be improved through this strategy. Most people in the psychedelics groups simply lack a clear example of clear writing. They are intelligent people capable of much more than it appears.

>It has been a PLEASURE in no uncertain terms to communicate with someone who is tactful, intelligent, and open minded. I only wish this were the norm in this newsgroup!

A friend writes:

>Yeah, word up on the poor level of discourse on the internet. I've been appointed "discussion leader" for a list which covers Aristotle's logical works. Very time consuming. But there are some _bona fide_ good participants -- one fellow who teaches philosophy of Cambridge, some from Canada, University of Hong Kong, Switzerland, etc. Some of these people can rattle off the most beautiful remarks. It hones your skills to talk with them.

The net has great potential and people *are* influenced by seeing role models and examples of disinterested pursuit of truth. In 5 years, the net population will consist of the same people, but by then, they will have matured out of the flaming mentality, because it is simply not worth the time, and fails to change any minds. Everyone can make this happen simply by raising their standards and eliminating the tone of vindictive sarcasm that is currently the standard attitude rampant all over the net.

The newsgroups are not *entirely* bad. *My* posts are proper discussion, not mere exchanges of grunts. But alas, it tends toward monologue. I have been coming down *hard* -- not flaming, but ranting -- about the lameness... and I have found it *very hard* to specify exactly what is so lame. It's something to do with short postings that fail to even *attempt* to add any substance or value.

I've been holding a mirror up to them, and telling them it doesn't have to be this way. I've been reminding them of the emptiness of American "education" and telling them about books. Not just drug books, but general interesting books.

American kids don't know anything except how to program and how to flip the remote. It's not their fault that they are perpetuating this downward spiral of standards and intellectual aspirations.

I've had to read like *mad* for several years to educate myself as well as the typical high school graduate in a decent educational system. And *I* got out of the American schools before they got *really* bad.

It is *not* that the people here have merely an IQ of 100.

The people here probably have much higher than 100 IQ. But they have been crippled, retarded, by American schooling and culture. The universities are no help -- they have become trade schools -- glorified shop classes for auto mechanics. The American college graduate has no more ability to judge and reason critically than they did after 6th grade. That is, *no* ability. This rant may be invalid, but it's true.

They can redeem themselves by, first of all, reading higher caliber material than is typical of these "joke" newsgroups on the net. Some other newsgroups have good examples of *true* conversation.

It all amounts to deliberately *trying* to post something *of substance*. Contribute something constructive. I'm tired of fishing in this pond that CAN AND SHOULD have rich yields, to come up with only guppies, again and again. BUT IT COULD BE DIFFERENT!

I am saying this for selfish reasons, as much as any -- I want to build the momentum of profound exchange. I want people to try to try.

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